It is difficult to think of Armstrong Auditorium without thinking of flight. When approaching the front of the building, a visitor cannot miss the 15-foot wingspans of Sir David Wynne’s Swans in Flight sculpture, as it stands amid a 120-foot reflecting pool and depicts the five stages of this bird taking flight. And when the six water jets zoom through the sculpture, it is easy to imagine the motion of flight—despite the fact that this work of art weighs nearly four tons.
You don’t have to physically visit Armstrong to be aware of this either. The building’s logo is based directly on the bronze-and-steel masterpiece.
Just before the building opened in the fall of 2010, one of the local television stations here aired a segment on the evening news about the auditorium. In it, the journalist mentioned how the building was about to metaphorically take flight—referencing the sculpture as a symbol of the auditorium’s future.
Our editor in chief had already drawn a similar comparison in a sermon a year before, saying, “Aren’t we about to begin to soar as never before?”
This symbol of human potential was originally installed at Ambassador College in Big Sandy, Texas, founded by our namesake Herbert W. Armstrong. Sir David had sculpted the iconic egret piece that towered in front of Ambassador Auditorium’s entrance at the college’s headquarters campus in Pasadena, California. The existence of that sculpture was based on a commission from Mr. Armstrong himself, who told the sculptor that he wanted a work of art that represented prayer, and Sir David thought the ascension of a bird would be the most universal representation of that.
Birds can, in fact, represent or help clarify spiritual concepts—which might otherwise be difficult, or abstract, for the young mind to grasp. Learning about this physical aspect of creation can and should be an inspiration, encouragement and motivation to us in our relationship with God. Grab your Bible as we take off into this fascinating flight through Scripture!
Are You Better Than a Bird?
Some of the birds mentioned in the Bible are listed simply as creatures in a sacrifice, or as an element of trade (as in King Solomon’s peacock exports). They form key details to certain Bible stories (Noah and Elijah, for instance), or to illustrate how they inhabit areas that have been laid desolate. Some references are simply about dietary instruction.
Birds are also used to show our value to God. In some verses, He uses His tender care of the birds as a way to show how much more He will care for human beings!
1. First, how much is God aware of the birds of His creation? Psalm 50:11.
2. The Bible uses birds to show the creative genius of God’s mind. Which birds show this? Job 39:26-30.
The hawk flies by God’s wisdom. The eagle mounts up, dwells in strong nests on high, and can see incredibly far distances—all at God’s command.
A bald eagle’s wing muscles account for half its body weight, and the muscles that pull the wings down are much larger—allowing it to gain altitude without much effort. So the eagle can make high nests—some having been spotted in branches 200 feet in the air. The eagle also dwells in a strong place. Bald eagle nests can become large and heavy over many years of reuse—the largest nest discovered weighed over two tons, with a diameter of 9.5 feet, and stood 20 feet high!
3. What bird does God use to show our value to Him? Luke 12:6-7.
Even this bird—one of the more common birds (and therefore of less monetary value in business at this time)—is noticed by God when it falls to the ground. God uses that to show us that we are “of more value than many sparrows” (see also Matthew 10:29-31).
4. What other bird—fed by God Himself—teaches us how much more important we are to Him? Luke 12:24; Job 38:41.
God feeds the young ravens who cry to Him (see also Psalm 147:9). The raven is known to expel its young from the nest as soon as it is able to fly. Unable to obtain food, they will make a croaking noise, and the Bible says God hears this! If they cry to God for food, and He feeds them, how much better are you? God has created an ecosystem that ensures these creatures are fed—not just ravens, but all birds (see Matthew 6:26). And He uses that to illustrate how much more is He aware of us!
5. The first word of Luke 12:24 tells us to “consider” these birds. That is what we are doing in this study. What question did Elihu tell Job he should be asking? Job 35:10-11.
As “wise” as the flying fowl are (designed by God to operate according to instinct), God made us to be wiser. These birds show us God’s wisdom. He designed these things to be lessons, symbols and comparisons for us.
Comparisons to God
What we just read were more literal references to birds themselves.
But there are a great many scriptural mentions of birds that are used in a variety of symbolic ways. Sometimes birds represent a strong enemy nation; sometimes they represent the victim of an attack. Birds are commonly referenced as being caught in snares or cages—which is a type of how we can be gullible or easily trapped spiritually. Often, they serve as a metaphor for God Himself or His blessings.
1. After Jesus’s baptism, how did God choose to visually represent the Holy Spirit to those disciples who witnessed this? Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32.
In Luke’s account, we see it took the “bodily shape” of a dove. And, to be clear that it wasn’t just poetic metaphor, John’s account quotes John the Baptist saying “I saw the Spirit descending … like a dove.”
2. In what context does God liken Himself to a bird?
This refers to the way God would protect Jerusalem during the troubling times that Hezekiah faced, when threatened by Assyria’s King Sennacherib.
3. What different kinds of birds are used as a symbol of God or His character? Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34; Exodus 19:4.
Of the two birds mentioned in the above verses, the bird mentioned in Exodus 19 is common throughout the Bible.
4. How specific does God get in likening Himself to this kind of bird? Deuteronomy 32:11-13.
God treats His people much like an eagle acts toward her young. Gary Rethford wrote about this verse in the Royal Vision: “Here, God likens Himself to the adult eagle who leads and encourages the young eaglet on its first flight by flying close to the young bird, and if it becomes tired, or for some reason begins to fail, the adult would swoop down under its offspring and support it with the air current of its own wings” (March-April 1999).
The Hebrew word for “eagle” is about as versatile as our English word—as there are numerous variants of the eagle. But there is evidence from nature that at least one type of eagle does what this verse says. There is a stunning account in Arthur Cleveland Bent’s Life Histories of North American Birds of Prey; Part I. Published in 1937, it relates this account of one observer of the Golden Eagle in Ojai, California: “Last summer … my father and I … noticed a golden eagle teaching its young one to fly. … The mother started from the nest in the crags, and, roughly handling the young one, she allowed him to drop, I should say, about 90 feet, then she would swoop down under him, wings spread, and he would alight on her back. She would soar to the top of the range with him and repeat the process. One time she waited perhaps 15 minutes between flights, I should say the farthest she let him fall was 150 feet. My father and I watched this, spellbound, for over an hour. I do not know whether the young one gained confidence by this method or not. A few days later father and I rode to the cliff and out on Overhanging Rock. The eagle’s nest was empty.”
God giving Israel safe passage “on eagles’ wings” is a type of how He will give His Church similar passage to a place of refuge (Revelation 12:14). The wings of the eagle should increase our faith in God as protector and provider.
Comparisons to Human Beings
Birds are also used to symbolize human beings and aspects of our lives.
1. To what bird does God’s Word commonly liken us? Psalm 74:19.
Twice in the Song of Songs, the Bridegroom likens His wayward Bride to this bird—and, in complimenting her beauty, says she has the eyes of this tender bird (Song of Songs 2:14; 5:2).
2. In what other ways can this bird be used for either a positive or negative comparison? Hosea 7:11; Matthew 10:16.
God punishes His end-time nation of Ephraim for being a “silly dove,” yet—when it comes to the gentle nature of this bird—Christ commands us to take on that particular feature. Doves are known, in fact, for not resisting attacks or retaliating against enemies.
3. Which birds does God use to condemn His people for not knowing things they ought to know? Jeremiah 8:7.
The word for “turtle” here is referring to the “turtledove.” What a condemnation: These instinct-driven animals are acting more in line with God’s will than His own people!
4. The high nest of which bird is a symbol of haughty over-confidence? Jeremiah 49:16; Obadiah 4.
5. What bird does God use to show a vile tendency of human nature? Job 39:13-18.
Even some of God’s people in the end time are acting the way this uncaring mother bird acts toward its eggs (see Lamentations 4:3). As our Lamentations booklet states: “Ostriches are very careless about their eggs, and if there’s any danger they’ll just run off and leave their young. An ostrich becomes ’hardened‘ against her own young, treating them as if they were not hers. Even the ugly old jackal will suckle its young and fight for its young. This is a very true picture of what happened with the Laodicean churches! The Laodiceans let their love wax cold (Matthew 24:12). The Laodicean ministers did not take care of their members as they should have.”
For the rest of this study, we will discuss three major areas where birds are used symbolically for us: in our trials or feelings of loneliness, in the protection and refuge we can be given, and in the spiritual strength to which we have access.
Symbolic of Trials
Biblical writers relied heavily on bird metaphors when they found themselves in sore trials. Studying these verses can give us a certain comfort in our times of distress.
1. In Job’s sore trial, to what bird did he liken himself? Job 30:29.
The King James Version’s use of “owls” here is possibly an ostrich (and the “dragons” are possibly jackals). Bible commentaries will point out that both animals utter mournful cries, and both are usually found in desolate, solitary places. The ostrich is known particularly for its shrill shrieks in the night.
2. In Micah’s prophecy, what animals did he use as a symbol of his wailing and mourning? Micah 1:8.
Micah uses the same animals as Job—specifically because of their ability to give shrill cries. Though there is some dispute over what kind of birds Micah and Job were discussing, these men were likening their cries to the screeches from these fowls. In Micah’s case, he felt this way because of the tragic prophecies God was showing him. As Micah—God’s People Rise Up as His Enemy points out: “Micah reacted with extreme emotion to this prophecy in his time, which was only a type of the far greater end-time destruction. He said he would make a shrill, mournful cry like an ostrich or the long piteous howl of a jackal. He was willing to go stripped and naked. Micah would do all of this to bring attention to God’s message and save people physically and spiritually! This verse illustrates the kind of extreme dedication we need to have in supporting God’s warning message. We don’t make the attention-getting howls of the jackals and shrieks of the ostriches, but we do let these expressions help build in us the very extreme dedication we must have for God’s Work!”
3. When Hezekiah was healed of a terminal illness, he wrote a song to memorialize God’s healing power. When describing his sickness, to what birds did he liken himself? Isaiah 38:14.
Hezekiah gave a “chatter” (more literally a chirp) of the crane or swallow. Lange’s Commentary states: “Mortally sick, [Hezekiah] can only utter weak murmurs and groans, like the complaining sounds of the swallow, the crane, the dove.”
The sound of the dove can be likened to a mournful cry (see also Isaiah 59:11; Ezekiel 7:16). The Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary says that the dove was “called by the Arabs the daughter of mourning, from its plaintive note.”
4. To what birds does the author of Psalm 102 liken his suffering? Psalm 102:6-7.
These birds are used here to depict a feeling of loneliness. The Soncino commentary discusses one’s reaction to seeing a pelican like this: “It was certainly the most somber, austere bird I ever saw. It gave one the blues merely to look at it. [The psalmist] could find no more expressive type of solitude and melancholy by which to illustrate his own sad state.”
Regarding the “sparrow alone upon the house top” in verse 7, Soncino states: “When one of them has lost its mate—a matter of everyday occurrence—he will sit on the housetop alone, and lament by the hour his sad bereavement.”
Though we can relate to these feelings of despair and loneliness, other verses about birds are compared to how God helps us!
Symbolic of Protection
We have already examined how God protects His people—likening God to an eagle. But there are several metaphors that depict us as the bird finding escape or refuge.
1. What bird symbolism is used to describe both our escape and God’s protection in Psalm 91? Psalm 91:3-4.
Those are two beautiful verses—where birds serve as a symbol for both us and God. In verse 3, we are like the birds whom God delivers from someone trying to trap birds (see also Psalm 124:6-7). In Psalm 91:4, God is like the bird under whose wings we can find shelter and refuge. Wings are used in several other psalms as a symbol of God’s protection (see Psalm 17:8; 36:7; 57:1; 61:4; 63:7).
2. What other component of God’s greatness can wings represent? Malachi 4:2.
3. What bird did David want to be like, in order to escape trouble? Psalm 55:6-7.
4. To what does God liken someone dwelling in a rock, or cave? Jeremiah 48:28.
Doves commonly nest in holes of rocks for safety.
Symbolic of Strength
We have already discussed the most common bird used in the Bible for strength, the eagle. But first notice this lesser-known example—and one that relates directly to the Work of the Philadelphia Church of God.
1. What bird does Zechariah see in his vision about the Church in the end time? Zechariah 5:9.
These birds are known for their powerful wings and the sound created by the air flowing over them. They are able to improve their lifting power with the fingered slots of their primary wings—allowing them to reach an altitude of three miles while migrating. Their immense wing surfaces enable them to achieve long-distance flights as well.
The reference to two women here is referring to God’s Church being in two major factions in the end time: one Laodicean and one Philadelphian (as much of our literature will explain). Zechariah—The Sign of Christ’s Imminent Return explains: “Both women have wings like storks—a symbol of God’s power. Each woman has access to God’s power, but only the Philadelphian woman is using that power before the Tribulation.”
2. What is one significant factor relating to the eagle’s strength that God promises us? Psalm 103:5.
Though our physical strength can wane as we age, we have access to God’s strength—which can restore our vigor to a youthful state. The eagle is the perfect symbol for this. It lives to a great age (some have been known to live 40 years!) and can retain its vitality through its lifespan. A Greek proverb says, “The eagle’s old age is as good as the lark’s youth.”
3. Isaiah was inspired to use a similar metaphor. Who is promised this kind of strength-renewal? Isaiah 40:31.
Trusting God gives us access to unlimited strength! With it we can take flight spiritually. The way of the eagle in the air is a wonder to human eyes (Proverbs 30:19). But what Isaiah specifically points out is this: The more we learn to rely on God, the more strength He gives us to accomplish great things. Isaiah writes that it is like an eagle with renewed strength—mounting up (or ascending, as shown earlier). Running without being weary is an incredible promise from God. Consider also that the eagles are often a symbol of swiftness (see 2 Samuel 1:23; Job 9:26; Jeremiah 4:13). Bald eagles can fly at about 30 miles per hour, but can dive at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour. When diving upon prey, golden eagles have been clocked at about 150 miles per hour!
Isaiah is drawing attention to the “rapid, untiring forward effort” (Lange’s Commentary) of the eagle as a metaphor for our strength when we totally trust God. We can be afforded renewed power every time we go to God for this rejuvenation! That is much like how we talk about the swan sculpture in front of Armstrong Auditorium.
We have explored this stunning aspect of God’s creation—what it teaches about our worth and God’s tender care for us. We have also explored how the Bible’s birds help us understand a variety of comparisons. We have explored birds used as metaphors for God: His blessings, power, protection, security—from wings in general, to the protective characteristics of the mother hen and eagle. We explored birds used as metaphors for us. We saw negative symbolism: our tendency to be gullible, cowardly, even cruel. But we also saw positive symbolism: beauty, gentleness, wisdom, submission, reliance on God.
We studied how birds were used to describe trials and loneliness, but also escape, refuge, protection, energy and strength.
God wants us to learn from all these scriptural passages—so we, spiritually, can soar as never before!